A toddler who went missing 14 years ago, 12,000 kilometres away, was reunited with her family Thursday night in Winnipeg.
"I love you," Alice Bisimwa told her younger sister through tears when Naomi arrived at the airport and was handed a dozen white roses.
"She was a sweet little girl," Bisimwa said at their reunion. "I would spoil her with treats." Their mother, Maria Musenga, met her long-lost child in Toronto earlier in the day when her overseas flight arrived. She recalled the first words her daughter said to her:
"I’m so happy to see you — I didn’t know if I would ever see you again."
In 2004, their village in the Democratic Republic of Congo was attacked. During the fighting, the family’s house was set on fire and Musenga’s husband was killed. She grabbed her children to escape, but couldn’t find the youngest — two-year-old Naomi.
Musenga was able to flee with her three other children. When it was safe the next day, the mother went back to look for the toddler, but the village was destroyed and deserted. With no sign of Naomi, and three young children to fend for, the agonized widow took refuge in neighbouring Uganda.
In 2009, Winnipeg-based Hospitality House Refugee Ministry heard of their plight and applied to sponsor the single mom and her children to come to Canada. Always hoping Naomi might be alive, Musenga listed the missing child on her immigration application.
In 2013, the family arrived in Canada.
Within two months of settling in Winnipeg, Musenga met a fellow villager from Congo with incredible news: Naomi was alive.
Musenga was overwhelmed. She was told on the day their community was attacked the toddler was rescued by another villager fleeing the chaos and taken to safety in Congo’s capital city.
"They gave Maria the name and contact info for the woman who had taken her to Kinshasa from their home village," said Hospitality House settlement director Karin Gordon, who took Musenga’s family under her wing. "Maria was able to contact this woman."
The news turned out to be true. Naomi was alive. But, with no legal guardian in a war-torn country that has no social safety net, the child had suffered.
"She’s been through a lot," Gordon said.
Once Naomi’s mother found her, she tried to help her. "Maria sent money to people to care for her, and she was calling her once a week to talk to her," said Gordon.
"Naomi was passed through foster homes," she said, referring to a series of unofficial caregivers who sheltered the little girl and often took the money her mother sent, but didn’t spend it on her care. "In one home, she was beaten so badly she was paralyzed on one side."
The girl, now 16, is trying to regain her full mobility.
While Musenga had located her daughter, proving to immigration officials that Naomi was her child and being allowed to bring her to Canada took nearly five years.
"We’ve got people waiting 10 years from the time of their initial sponsorship," Gordon said. Hospitality House is one of Canada’s largest private sponsors of refugees.
"It is agonizing for the refugees overseas who are often subject to abuse," she said. "We hold their hands by email, but we can’t speed up Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada."
In Naomi’s case, DNA tests were required to prove Musenga is her biological mother. They cost more than $1,000 — beyond the budget of Musenga, who works in housekeeping at a Winnipeg hotel. The cost was covered by Hospitality House, a charity that receives no government funding and relies on donations.
This past month, they learned Naomi would arrive in Canada on March 8.
On Thursday morning, Musenga flew to Toronto to meet her daughter’s flight when it landed in Canada.
The mother and daughter flew together to Winnipeg that night, where they were met at the airport by Naomi’s siblings.
"We’re absolutely thrilled for them," Gordon said. "We’re so happy the family is together and complete. Now, Maria and Naomi, who bonded over the phone, will be within hugging distance."
Musenga appeared in a 2017 documentary about Hospitality House, titled While We Can — the Road to Rescue. Filmmaker Leona Krahn was also at the airport Thursday night to capture the happy ending for a postscript to add to the film.
It’s a reunion story that could only happen in Winnipeg, Gordon said, "because we brought so many refugees to Canada."
Sister Aileen Gleason founded Hospitality House in 1987, to bring to Canada people stuck in unsafe places after fleeing their home countries.
"We sponsored oodles of Congolese," Gordon said.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Friday, March 9, 2018 at 11:34 AM CST: Adds more photos